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Daniel Crouch Rare Books

Thomas L. McKENNEY

History of the Indian Tribes of North America.

First edition, first issue, in original publishers parts, of the portraits of Indian dignitaries.

530 by 385mm.


First edition, first issue, with title-pages for each of the three volumes State A: volume I, first issue was by Edward C. Biddle and is dated 1836 or more usually 1837, as here; volume II, first issue is by Frederick W. Greenough and dated 1838; volume III, first issue is by Daniel Rice & James G. Clark and dated 1844. Second state of frontispiece ‘War Dance’ plate, which was originally suppressed.

When Thomas L. McKenney (1785-1859) was appointed Superintendent of Indian Trade in 1816, he immediately set about creating an archive to preserve the artifacts, implements, and history of the Native Americans. The Archives of the American Indian became the first national collection in Washington and were curated with great care by McKenney through his tenure as Superintendent and also when he served as the first head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs beginning in 1824. After McKenney visited the studio of Charles Bird King, in 1822, he was inspired to add portraits to the archives. King would, for the following twenty years, capture many of the visiting Indian dignitaries, as well as make copies of watercolors created in the field by the less able James Otto Lewis. Many saw the great value in preserving what was already known to be a vanishing race, but others in government criticized the expenses incurred. The visiting Indian delegations who had come to Washington to meet with the "Great Father" (their name for the president) would inevitably tour the Indian gallery, which was housed in the War Department building, and were generally impressed, many requesting that their portrait be painted and added to the collection. This seemed to help smooth relations during the, often tense, treaty negotiations.

McKenney was preparing to publish a collection of the Indian portraits when he lost his position at the Bureau during Andrew Jackson's house cleaning in 1830. This seemed like an omen, as many other setbacks befell the project: publishers went bankrupt, investors dropped out, historical information became unobtainable, and expenses soared. McKenney finally enlisted Ohio jurist and writer James Hall (1793-1868) to assist with the project, making him a partner. Hall was able to complete the individual biographies of each subject and put the finishing touches on the general history.

Six years passed between the original prospectus and the issue of the first part. In that time, James Otto Lewis, who was likely bitter that he would receive no credit for the King-reworked portraits that he sent to the Archives, beat McKenney to the market with his own ‘Aboriginal Port-Folio’ in 1835.

Unfortunately for Lewis, the illustrations were of inferior quality and very few of its later numbers were ever completed. McKenney and Hall's ‘History of the Indian Tribes of North America’, on the other hand, was a resounding artistic success. The lithographs were of such high quality, comparable to the best work from Europe, that John James Audubon commissioned the lithographer James T. Bowen to provide illustrations for a revised edition of his ‘Birds of America’. ‘Indian Tribes...’ wasn't a financial success, however, for its high price prohibited all but the wealthy and public libraries from subscribing to it. This and the depression after the panic of 1837 both contributed to the work going through several publishers and lithographers before its completion.

King's original paintings were eventually transferred to the Smithsonian Institute, where most of them perished in the January 1865 fire. A number of the paintings exist in the form of contemporary copies made by King and his students, but the present work is by far the most complete record of this important collection.